Sam Riley

Sometimes Always Never

16/06/19

Scrabble can be a hard lesson for people like me, who are in love with language. We initially approach it, don’t we, thinking it will be an exercise in showing off our vocabulary, a chance to demonstrate how erudite we are? But we quickly learn that it’s really a brutal game of mathematics and that those players who have memorised a series of obscure, high-scoring two letter words are going to wipe the floor with us.

It’s this condumdrum that lies at the heart of Sometimes Always Never, a quirky and bitter-sweet story, written by Frank Cotterall Boyce and directed by Frank Hunter. It’s set in and around Formby, where Anthony Gormley’s distinctive sculptures haunt the sands, looking for all the world like bit-part players waiting for a chance to step into the action.

Alan (Bill Nighy) is a fascinating character, a retired tailor (the film’s title refers to the three buttons on a jacket and how you should wear them). He’s also a part time Scrabble-hustler. In the film’s downbeat opening, he meets up with his estranged son, Peter (Sam Riley) and the two of them go to have a look at the body of a dead man. Alan’s other son, Michael, you see, went missing years ago, following a heated argument over a game of… Scrabble, and Alan’s life since then has been dominated by his absence. The dead man turns out to be the missing son of Margaret (Jenny Agutter) and Arthur (Tim Mcinnery),  and, relieved, Alan heads home. But a couple of days later,  he arrives unnanounced at Peter’s house, where he pretty much moves in, much to the bafflement of Peter’s affable wife, Sue (Alice Lowe), and her teenage son, Jack (Louis Healy), with whom Alan ends up sharing a room. As the days pass and there is no sign of Alan going home, he begins to exert a peculiar influence over the family…

This is a deliciously oddball concoction which finds plenty of fun in the strange rituals that people employ in order to rub through their days. Nighy is as terrific as ever, though it does take a little while to adjust to the shock of hearing him speak with a Merseyside accent. Mind you, that also goes for Jenny Agutter, who manages to hide her own painfully plummy tones in a similar manner. It’s apparent from their first meeting that Alan and Margaret  have some chemistry between them.

Despite its charms, the film suffers a little from an inconsistency of tone. For instance, an early scene where Alan and Peter appear to be driving in a cardboard cutout car is a delight, but this approach isn’t used anywhere else – and a scene featuring Alexi Sayle as a random fisherman doesn’t really add anything to the story. Furthermore, any film that’s lucky enough to have Alice Lowe in the cast really ought to find a little more for her to do but, these reservations aside, this is mostly a cleverly judged cocktail of wry chuckles and poignant observations.

Not exactly earth-shattering stuff, then, but – in its own way – a satisfying and rather unique cinematic experience.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Free Fire

28/02/17

In a relatively short career, director Ben Wheatley has created some exciting and groundbreaking films. His most consistent piece, Sightseers, is a delightful comedy with a dark and twisted heart – and his last outing, an adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise, though not perfect, was one of the most challenging pieces of dystopian cinema in a long time.

So it gives me absolutely no pleasure at all to report that Free Fire is an unmitigated dud. I came out of this advance screening asking myself just exactly what Wheatley thought he was trying to do here. This is the kind of film that forged Tarantino’s early reputation – indeed, if Free Fire resembles any other movie, it’s Reservoir Dogs. Now, I’ve been quite cutting about Tarantino over the years, suggesting that the man’s slender talent has been repeatedly overpraised but, seriously, Free Fire makes him look like a genius film-maker. It really is that bad.

It’s Boston in 1978. Actually, it’s a warehouse in Brighton, but it hardly matters since the action never bothers to step outside of that single location. IRA men Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are attempting to buy rifles for their cause; the deal has been arranged by South African popinjay, Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his American friend Ord (Armie Hammer). Brie Larson plays Justine, a thankless token female role and, just in case that’s not enough, there’s also a token black man, Martin (Babou Ceesay, dressed like an extra from Shaft). In the opening stages of the film, there are admittedly a few witty lines thrown around. Enjoy them while you can, because this early promise is soon squandered.

Midway through the deal, an argument ensues between twitchy junkie, Stevo (Sam Riley) and one of Vernon’s goons, Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). It rapidly escalates and, inevitably, a gunfight ensues. You’d better like gunfights, by the way, because this one lasts for the rest of the movie, around eighty minutes of characters you don’t really know or care about hurling a mixture of bullets and F words at each other without pause or reason.

Perhaps Wheatley is trying to show the absurdity of violence. Perhaps he’s simply pushing the envelope of the genre, stripping it back to its basics. Whatever he is trying to do, it fails miserably. This is simply deadly boring. It also tests credulity to the limit as characters are shot again and again, but don’t have the decency to fall down and die. Quite how Wheatley convinced a troop of A list actors to appear in this nonsense remains the biggest mystery of all. (Christ, what did the screenplay look like?) Inevitably, there will be those who hail Free Fire as a work of genius, but that would be a re-run of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Unless the idea of an endless gunfight appeals to you – and I’ll admit that, in the right hands, it could conceivably have worked – this is one to file under D for disaster.

The screening is followed by a Q & A with Wheatley and actor Sam Riley – and it  speaks volumes when I admit that I bail out and head to a local bar for what feels like a well-earned drink. The only question I could have mustered would have been, ‘Why?’

A major disappointment.

1.5 stars

Philip Caveney